May 28, 2004

A Day Exploring Reykjavik

Susanne and I arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, just before 6:30am local time. Our 4 1/2-hour flight from Boston was a sleepless one; the IcelandAir 757 was cramped and uncomfortable, and people were irritable because the airline was charging people money for even a glass of soda. Despite our lack of sleep, we were excited to have arrived in Iceland for our brief two-day stay. Later in the weekend we'd fly onward to Stockholm, Sweden, after which we'd proceed south to Ronneby so I could speak at the conference.

The Reykjavik airport was small, yet surprisingly chaotic: departure gates had few seats so people were forced to stand in awkward, bunched-up groups, while the ATM was placed at a bottleneck point in the customs area, creating a huge line of people that blocked everyone's exit. After waiting in line at the ATM to get our first Icelandic currency (about 73 krone to the US dollar, in case you're wondering) we got on board a shuttle bus for the 45-minute ride into the capital .

The road to Reykjavik was lined with volcanic debris as far as the eye could see; reddish-black rocks twisted and mangled in the throes of eruption eons ago. The lava rock trailed down the craggy foothills into the sea, creating a series of small tidal pools along the shoreline. Every few kilometers, large pieces of lava had been stacked by someone into surreal, human-like forms, an Arctic Easter Island adorned with volcanic cairns.

By 8am we arrived at the outskirts of Reykjavik; in the distance we could see the soaring concrete church known as the Hallgrimskirkja, regarded by locals as either bold or monstrous depending on whom you asked. Beyond the Hallgrimskirkja, more traditional Icelandic church steeples could be seen, set against a backdrop of residential neighborhoods and trees touched by the first greenery of spring. The shuttle brought us to the city's main bus terminal, where we transferred to a smaller shuttle bus that ended up driving no more than 30 seconds before pulling over along a busy road.

"Your guesthouse, the Travel Inn, is right over there," the driver told us. "It's easier if you walk the last block."

Susanne and I grabbed our bags and crossed the road, passing several houses before reaching our guesthouse. Inside we were greeted by the morning manager, who to our surprise appeared to be south Indian rather than Icelandic. He told us our room was already available - another surprise, considering it was only 8am - and we could even sit down for breakfast if we were hungry. So we dropped our things into the room -- a spartan, overpriced cellar with two stiff beds and a wash basin -- and went straight for the dining room, enjoying a ravenous breakfast of muesli, burnt toast, marmalade and hard boiled eggs.

By 9am we figured it was time for us to explore Reykjavik. We'd booked a tour of the so-called "Golden Circle" for tomorrow, during which we'd get to see some of rural Iceland's most spectacular natural surroundings. So today would be our day for the big city.

Big, of course, is all relative in Iceland, a country with less than 300,000 people overall. Reykjavik is home to around two-thirds of that population, but it still feels like an overgrown fishing village, with its quaint architecture, boutique shops and waterside views. The city doesn't have a reputation of being the most beautiful or exciting city in Europe, but it still has a unique character that makes it a worthwhile place to visit, even if it's just for a day or so.

The skies began to sprinkle on us as we walked up the main road past the Tjorn, Reykjavik's largest pond. A pretty church soon appeared on our right; upon closer inspection we realized its outer walls were covered in corrugated metal, something we might not have noticed if we hadn't ventured so near to it. Within a couple of blocks we reached Austurstraeti, the main road that bisects Reykjavik's old town. To our right we could see the prime minister's residence, a modest old white structure, and a variety of boutique shops climbing up the hillside. To our left, we hoped to find a café that would be open for business, a place where we could infuse ourselves with another dose of caffeine while avoiding the steadily increasing raindrops.

We soon passed two potential candidates. One café was small, intimate, crowded; the other, Café Paris, more of a grand café, but quiet at this time of day, almost deserted. Before making our decision we made a loop around Ingolfstorg Square, briefly viewing the harbor and shipping port, before returning to the first café we'd seen a few minutes earlier. It was less crowded than before, so we were able to get a table immediately. The Icelandic barista took our coffee orders - a cappuccino and a latte - while chatting with a co-worker, effortless slipping from English to Icelandic and backk. His co-worker spoke English with a strong Aussie accent; I couldn't tell if she was actually from Down Under or had simply learned her English there.

After finishing our coffees, we walked around the corner to Austurvollur Square, a leafy little park that's home to Iceland's Althing, or parliament. The parliament was a modest gray stone building, the kind of structure you would have otherwise mistaken for a Victorian-era mill or warehouse. It was a pretty building, certainly, but seemed too small a place to serve as a national seat of government. Across the street we found the city's oldest church, the Domkirkja. Built in the late 1700s, the church had been recently renovated and was again open for visitors. We went inside the church, joining a woman with a small group of young children who were spying its altar. The church was very charming, yet simple, with clean lines and beautiful wood pews. Susanne and I stayed long enough to take a few pictures before returning outside, where the rain had stopped for a few minutes.

Heading east on Austurstaeti, we passed the prime minister's residence and walked uphill, briefly stopping at the tourist information center so I could get a sense of what events were going on that weekend while Susanne took advantage of the public restrooms. From there we cut north to the harbor, admiring a giant metal sculpture of a Viking ship that was withstanding the elements much better than we were at that particular moment. The view of the harbor was quite striking, with the snow-capped mountains in the distance, but the wind and drizzle became too much for us, so we returned a few blocks inland to take shelter among the souvenir shops and cafes.

As we continued eastward, the giant stone façade of the Hallgrimskirkja appeared to grow taller and taller. By the time we reached the cathedral, it looked almost Stalinesque - a monolithic, lava-like phallic symbol penetrating the heavens for the entire island to recognize. It was unlike any church I'd ever seen. Perhaps if it had been any other color it would be quite extraordinary, but the dull gray concrete just kept reminded me of Soviet-era housing estates. The inside of the cathedral was somewhat more impressive, with two rows of extraordinarily thin columns soaring up to the ceiling. High on the entrance wall sat an unusual pipe organ; some of its pipes were aimed horizontally rather than vertically, giving the impression it was a chromatic tribute to classic automobile tailpipes of the 1950s.

After exploring the interior, we then paid the ISK 300 fee to take the elevator to the top of the cathedral spire. Reaching the top, we found ourselves in the bell tower, with fine views of the city and harbor below. We could see row after row of classic Icelandic houses, each painted in red, yellow, blue or green, all in striking contrast with each other. The next thing we realized, it was 12 o'clock, and the bells began to chime. Fortunately I still had a set of earplugs in my pocket from our overnight flight, which probably saved my ears from several days' worth of tinnitus.

Exiting the cathedral, we briefly explored several souvenir shops before stopping at a café for lunch, only to leave a couple of minutes later when we realized we weren't exactly as hungry as we thought we were. I figured it was probably a 20-minute walk west to Café Paris if we didn't make any stops, so I suggested we head in that general direction, then decide if we were ready to eat once we got back in that neighborhood. Our instincts were correct; after walking downhill and visiting several more shops, we were ready to have some lunch. Even better, the sun had begun to break through the clouds, so we entered the café and sat by the window, soaking in the rays. This lasted for no more than 90 seconds, after we realized we were also seated next to a radiator. Apologizing to the waitress, we moved across the room to another table and settled in for a pleasant lunch comprised of a tuna melt for myself and a waffle for Susanne.

Following lunch, the sun began to shine brightly outside. We returned to Austurvollur Square, admiring the parliament and the domskirkja , quite literally, in a whole new light. Within a matter of minutes, it seemed, the temperature had warmed up from the high 40s to the low 60s. Susanne and I stripped off our jackets and tied them around our waists as we walked eastward towards the opposite side of the old town, eager to whittle away the afternoon visiting antique stores, souvenir haunts and gourmet shops.

It was now mid-afternoon, and we'd realized that we had pretty much seen everything there was to see in old town Reykjavik -- save the museums, but the weather was now too nice to coop ourselves inside for more than a couple minutes at a time. By 4pm, we'd had our fill of antiquing and church-gazing, so we began to walk back to the hotel. We lingered for a long while at the Tjorn, hanging out with the hundreds of ducks, geese, pigeons and terns that called the pond home. An American family was feeding some of the birds with stale bread, causing a series of skirmishes between various players in the avian population. Susanne and I took pictures of the birds and enjoyed the warm sun, appreciating each ray as it touched our faces.

We'd spent the last seven hours getting to know the old town, and we were ready for a respite at our guesthouse. Susanne took a nap while I showered, enjoying perhaps the hottest water I've ever experienced in a bathing situation, thanks to Iceland's seemingly endless supply of underground geothermal energy. By 7pm, we were ready to go out to dinner; it was early by Reykjavik dining standards, but we also hadn't slept in over a day, so we figured we needed to eat now before we started to crash hard. Rather than taking the main road past the eastern shore of the Tjorn, we cut west to go the long way around the pond. It was a wonderful little excursion; the far side of the pond was humming with Arctic terns, which had just returned to Iceland from their peerless migratory trek from Antarctica. Soon they would lay their eggs, stay a while to incubate them, then return south for another round of the greatest avian adventure in the world.

After lingering along the western shore of the pond, admiring the view of the old town as the sun caked the skyline with orange and yellow hues, we passed the parliament and searched for dinner. Most of the Icelandic restaurants were exorbitantly overpriced, with entrees alone often hovering at the $40 mark. Given the fact that Iceland isn't exactly legendary for its cuisine, we decided to stick with an old standby - Indian. We tracked down an Indo-Pak restaurant called the Shalimar, on the western side of the old town. Susanne ordered a chickpea curry while I had a chicken and kidney-bean curry, both of which were delicious. I told the manager I hadn't expected to find good Indian food in Iceland. "You're not the first visitor to say that, I'm proud to admit," he replied.

After dinner, we briefly stopped at Kaffi Reykjavik to spy its trendy Ice Bar - a cocktail lounge made entirely of ice. The frozen lounge was totally deserted, and probably wouldn't get hopping until after 11pm - well past our bedtime given our jetlag. So we strolled back towards the hotel, once again passing the pond. I'd wanted to take the long way around it one more time but we started to feel raindrops yet again -- and we'd neglected to bring our umbrellas with us. So Susanne and I took the straight path home to the guesthouse, where we spent the rest of the evening relaxing, Susanne reading a book while I wrote this journal... –andy

Posted by acarvin at May 28, 2004 10:51 AM | TrackBack

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